Breathing when you are Breathless – How Yoga Sustained Me in My Cancer Journey

Wide angle stretch

Looking back at the traumatic journey for my three cancer discoveries and treatment, I truly appreciate how yoga was crucial in sustaining me. A regular yoga practice benefits the body, mind, and spirit preparing you to face any challenge that life throws your way. It allows you to breathe when you are breathless.

I was convinced to start practicing yoga by my Sweetheart. I had injured my right ankle from being thrown from my horse. I could hardly walk, let alone stand on it as it was too painful. She suggested, prodded, and nagged me into participating in a men’s only yoga class at a studio across the street from our home.

I was hooked. With regular yoga practice my ankle was healed. I saw the physical benefits that yoga produced. I quick realized the mental and spiritual awakening that yoga allowed as well. Yoga became a vehicle for me to look inside, check in with myself and explore my being. I kept studying and practicing yoga. It became part of my life.

When I was diagnosed with three cancers, the state of shock was enormous. Getting a diagnosis of one cancer is enough to cause panic in anyone. When you been pronounced with cancer your mind quickly goes to “and I am going to die.”

I was told I had bladder, kidney and prostate cancer. I was overwhelmed. Bewildered. Breathless. I just couldn’t get past the massive probability that I wouldn’t make it. My poor Sweetheart was equally affected. A great sense of sadness overcame me. My world was ending.

I am so grateful for my loving Sweetheart as she kept at me about taking everything one step at a time. I found myself doing a lot of yoga breathing to try and calm the anxiety. Although I intellectually knew that I needed to go one step at a time, I was an emotional and spiritual wreck. I couldn’t see the use of going through it all with the odds against me.

It was on December 21, 2014, that I found enlightenment. I figured that doing sun salutations on the shortest day of the year was appropriate. I didn’t need to think… just doing one pose after another.

I believe I was in my third round of sun salutations when the emotions came to the surface. Yoga does that. I was in cobra pose and could not move into downward dog. In fact, I collapsed on the floor and cried. I have never cried this deeply before. All my despair come out with my tears.

I don’t remember how long I was prone on the floor. I was spent. Laying there I had a little thought flash in my head. I needed to move to the next pose… and then the next… and the next. With each one, I found enough strength to move to the next one.

That’s when I got it. A sun salutation is a series of poses – one pose after the other. You can only get to the end when you have performed each pose. Yoga tells you to be in the moment with each pose – a mindful practice.

My Sweetheart was right. I needed to go mindfully through each step in the cancer treatments. I had to focus on each one to make each one count. In doing so, I could let go of the outcome. I would either live or die – it would be as it would be. But I would be content knowing that I made every step purposefully.

And so I started all the testing and underwent surgeries and more testing with that outlook.

After the bladder procedure to remove the nodes, I experienced a bladder spasm in recovery. It was the most painful experience I’ve ever had. A 10 on the pain scale. I had a momentary black out. You can bet I did a lot of yoga breathing during that episode.

One of the testing procedures was to obtain a biopsy of my right kidney to determine if my growth was a tumor. This involved inserting a four inch needle, several time, into the middle of my back under the right lung. Six times, I was instructed to pause at the exhale so they could take a sample. Yoga trains you to control your breath, so I found this easy. However, the doctor was impressed at my skill.

The right kidney operation was a six hour affair. It was conducted laparoscopically and I have five scars to show for that. The doctor inflates your belly with nitrogen so that they have a clear access to internal organs. I was really bloated post-operatively.

The important thing is that the surgery disturbs the fascia holding all the organs in place. If I remained immobile, then organs could start adhering to each other before the fascia was healed. I did bed yoga – doing basic gentle stretching to prevent that.

The prostate was open surgery. I have a large central scar and three other small ones. This one really hurt because of cutting through six inches of my abdominal wall. I found that I couldn’t sit up by using my abdominis rectus muscles. I engaged my transverse abdominals to sit up side-ways. Wow I am sure grateful that I had worked those before surgery.

My on-going meditations through yoga sustained me in keeping focussed on the next step and letting go of the outcome. I became very internally centered. When I found myself getting panicked, I’d breathe and meditate – do some sun salutations to remind me of the journey.

This concentration on the internal me, catalyzed a discovery or may be re-affirmation of who I really am. Breathing… I stripped away all the illusions, falsehoods and ambitions. Breathing … A truth emerged… that I can only do things from a place of kindness and love. Breathing… I beheld that acting from my heart, fed my spirit, my mind and my body. And then, I was no longer breathless.

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